Whether discussing the handmade coffee table in her comfortable living room or her most recent excursion – a kayaking trip — Opal Hughes has mastered the ability to cherish the past while living in the present.
At 88-years-young, the Stuart resident was the eldest of 11 children of Dudley Williams and Bertha Murphy Williams.
Although she cherishes family heirlooms like the coffee table, which was completely made by her father — “He cut the walnut tree, sawed the boards, constructed and put the finish on this table,” she said — Hughes is equally adept at enjoying life.
She recently returned from a road trip to Birmingham, Alabama, where she went on an outing with her daughter, Benda McHone and Brenda’s husband, Jimmy.
“If they say they’re going, I’m in the backseat. I’m ready to go,” Hughes said, and she meant it. That trip was one of many, she said.
She and her sister, Nancy Hubbard, hopped on an airplane in February and jetted down to Valdosta, Ga. Hubbard’s son, Phillip, made all the arrangements, which included wheelchair assistance at the airport to transfer from one location to another.
“We could have walked it, but it sure did help to have them take us,” Hughes said, adding her nephew is an active kayaker, a member of a kayaking club and frequents the Suwannee River. A big reason for the Georgia trip was for Hughes and Hubbard to enjoy a 3-mile kayak float down the river.
“I didn’t even know there was a Suwannee River,” Hughes said. “I used to go to school and sing, ‘Way down the Suwannee River; far, far, away,’ but I never dreamed I’d be there.”
But she was, and it was the first time for both Hughes and her sister. Except for an overhanging branch swiping Hubbard out of her kayak, they had a wonderful outing, Hughes said.
The Georgia trip also included a visit to Plains, home of former President Jimmy Carter.
“I see why they call it Plains. It’s just as plain as it can be,” she quipped.
When reminiscing about her childhood, Hughes said playing ball was among the happiest of her memories.
“Mama would make us a ball out of an old rag or something and we’d use a board for a bat,” Hughes said. Even now, she can be found at just about any ball game where young children are playing, including soccer, volleyball, basketball, T-ball, baseball, softball, and football games.
You name the sport and Hughes is there, watching grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews. She watches grandson Jon’s small boys, Evan and Zachary, play soccer, football basketball, and baseball. And sometimes, she just goes to the games to enjoy the young folks playing, whether they are family or not.
Thanks to Patrick County High School (PCHS), Hughes said she can get into all the sports with a free senior pass.
She also travels to Tennessee to watch her great-grandchildren play soccer, she said of Delaney and Jimmy McHone, grandchildren of Brenda and Jimmy.
Besides playing ball as a child, Hughes recalled “we enjoyed our play house in the woods. We put green moss on the rocks for our chairs. We always had such a good time.”
Hughes and her family lived in Rye Cove, which is in the Dobyns Community of Patrick County. Their small sustenance farm was located at the foot of the Pete Hill, and they saw-milled to earn a living.
“All of us worked in the saw mill, and we worked every day but Sunday,” Hughes said.
The family also grew a big garden and Hughes said her mama canned a lot, “in half-gallon jars; we picked black berries, huckleberries, and beans, worked all summer,” she said.
Hughes also recalled the family raised and killed hogs and made apple butter and molasses. She said after growing the sugar cane, the family initially used horses or steers to pull the grinder.
“Later Daddy rigged up a motor to pull it. He was one smart man, even if he never learned to read and write,” she said.
During the Depression, her father traveled to West Virginia to work in the mines with his brother, she said. While there, he met and married her mother, Bertha Murphy. They moved back to Trot Valley where Dudley Williams was raised. The family later moved to Rye Cove.
The fourth youngest of 17 siblings, Williams also had 4 step-siblings. A well known brother, Woodrow Williams, was the youngest of the bunch; he was locally known as a colorful character. Dudley Williams outlived all of his siblings, and was 95 when he died.
When WWII started — and even though he had nine children at the time — Williams was drafted and went to Roanoke for a physical exam. He failed the physical and did not have to serve.
Hughes said she was born in 1929; her brother Jack in 1931. Jack died while serving in the US Air Force. Twin siblings, Sadie (Martin) and Jossie, now deceased, were born in 1932, she said. Hughes’ mother went on to have seven more children. The last one was born in 1946, she said.
Eight siblings are living, she said. Most are retired, except for brother, Nash, who continues to operate his veterinarian practice in Sparta, N.C.
The siblings went to a one room school in Rye Cove for grades one through seven. The teachers boarded in Rye Cove, according to Hughes who remembered the names of teachers Carrie Rangeley and Lucille Hanby.
After finishing classes there, youngsters walked 3.5 miles over Pete Hill to Central Academy, or the caught a bus at Hopkins Store (on Highway 58), to go to Stuart High School, where Hughes graduated in 1948.
Chris Williams, now deceased, then was a young teenager and drove the bus. “He just flew,” she added.
Having been born at the time of the Great Depression, Hughes recalled her father still bought a bag of oranges for Christmas.
“We ate them, peeling and all, and they were good,” she said, adding the family enjoyed their Christmases together. She also remembered going out on the farm to find a small cedar tree on Christmas Eve and decorated it with handcrafted, found items.
“We saved the little foil papers that were used to line cigarette packs, and we wrapped sycamore tree balls with the foil to hang (them) on the tree,” she said.
The family also cut and made paper chains. Their mother made the glue — a paste made from flour and water, she added.
When the last decoration was hung and “it was finished, that tree was the prettiest thing in the world,” Hughes said wistfully.”Yeah boy, we really believed in Santa Claus, we always got hard candy,” she recalled.
Hughes said her dad often made their gifts, and she recalled that one Christmas, he even made wheel-barrows for the older boys.
While her mother could do lots of things, sewing was not her forte. “Mama didn’t know how to sew a stitch,” Hughes said, but recalled that one winter, her daddy went to town to buy a well-needed cook stove and returned with a new sewing machine.
“Mama was just sick (because) she really needed a stove,” Hughes said, and added the purchase of the machine was not wasted. Hughes learned to sew on the treadle machine, and often staying at the house and sewing while the others went to the field.
She sewed school clothes and all the dresses, Hughes said. Because of her experience, “when I got in home economics class at high school, I was ahead of all the others.”
The family also enjoyed making music, often sitting on the front porch, singing as their daddy played a guitar.
“Once I tried a song with yodeling in it, but Daddy didn’t like that to much so I just quit singing,” Hughes said.
Clyde, her younger brother who mostly played the fiddle, was a member of what was known as the Clyde Williams Band. He and fellow musicians often played at the Floyd Country Store and other dances, Hughes said.
Sadie played the standing bass and the whole family enjoyed attending the Galax Fiddlers Convention, especially the old time music competitions and other music festivals, Hughes said.
Although she and her future husband, Frank Hughes, met when they were in high school, Frank quit high school and joined the Air Force. The two got married when he returned to Patrick County after the war ended. (Frank also had four brothers who served in the Army at the same time he was in the military. All returned safely to Patrick County.)
The two married on October 13, 1948, and lived in a rented 2 room house near the area known as Howell’s Bottom. In 1950, they took the opportunity to buy a country store then called Hopkins. Located about 4-miles north of Stuart on Highways 8/58, they named it Frank’s Place and sold gas, groceries, hay, feed, and other farming goods.
They lived in a house beside Frank’s Place and ran the store until 1955. Frank, who did not have asthma as a child, developed severe asthma after returning from the war. His doctor told him he needed to move away for the asthma to subside.
Hughes said people would come by the store and tell Frank that Florida was the place to go. So they closed the store, left their children (Brenda, 6 and Danny, 3) with Opal Hughes’ mother, and headed to Florida to see what they could find.
They were bound for Miami, but stopped at an orange juice stand in Daytona. The proprietor told them to visit Daytona Beach before they proceeded. They were told they could drive 23 miles on the beach. They stayed there for nine days and Frank did not suffer any asthma symptoms, so they started looking for a place to work and live. After driving around, they found a place and paid cash.
Frank’s brother bought the store, and the Hughes family packed up their children and moved to Florida. Frank never had asthma again.
Opal Hughes found work in a hypodermic needle factory in Deleon Springs, Fla.; Frank Hughes managed a bar for awhile and then started to do tractor work. They bought extra acreage and began “fern farming,” growing and harvesting green ferns used in flower arranging, Opal Hughes said, adding at one time, they were tending 7- acres of ferns.
The work was hard, because ferns were grown year round and had to be harvested by stooping and clipping them at the ground, she said. Fern founds were placed 25 to a bundle then a rubber band was placed on each bundle.
Their situation changed when daughter Brenda returned to Stuart to spend the summer with her grandparents, and found a husband.
“She could not have found a better one anywhere,” Hughes said, adding Danny moved to Texas for work.
The Hughes realized they were in Florida, working too hard with no family around, and missing the Blue Ridge Mountains of home. So they sold their business and property and moved back to Stuart, Hughes said.
Opal Hughes spent nine years working at Pannill Knitting in Stuart. Frank Hughes took up “sang hunting,” a profession that he loved. He roamed the hills and valleys, hunting and harvesting ginseng, Hughes said.
He usually took the ginseng to sell to a dealer in Staunton.
Sometimes she accompanied him and they rode a four-wheeler on the search. “I thought it was fun.”
Frank Hughes stayed out all day when he was hunting.
“He saved up enough to buy a brand new Toyota pickup, Jimmy’s (McHone) still driving it,” Opal Hughes said. “He was good at spotting it.”
Sadly, Frank Hughes passed away in 2005. At the time, Opal Hughes was getting on in years, but she was still not ready to be a “house sitter,” and she took on a part-time job as clerk at Plantiques and stayed busy with family gatherings and going to ball games.
Her son, Danny, had two children and daughter, Brenda, had three. Hughes now has 19 grandchildren and one great grandchild, with “one on the way,” she said. Throw traveling and church activities into the mix, and she manages to stay busy.
She said she guessed the Lord just blessed her with good health, and that is why she has lived such a fulfilled and happy life.
When asked what advice she would give to young people, Hughes quickly replied, “find a church you like to go to and stay active doing things with your family.”
Just recently her son showed up at her church for Mother’s Day, and “nothing could have pleased me anymore,” she said.
Hughes’ closing words of wisdom are “tell your mama and daddy you love them,” from Rye Cove to the Suwannee River and back, what a life.
(Hill is a retired educator and storyteller who shares her talents with The Enterprise.)